Dear Deirdre may change the way we learn

The Economic and Sciences Research Council has given a £700,000 grant to a team at the Universities of Sheffield, Sussex, Edinburgh and Newcastle so they can explore a new way for junior health care workers to learn how to make clinical decisions, using a similar process to that used in agony columns.

The project will be analysing the effectiveness of using vicarious learning to teach speech and language therapy students to make reasoned clinical decisions. Vicarious learning is based on the idea that you can learn by watching the learning experiences of other people. Advice columns are a popular example. An individual writes in with their problem and others learn how to solve similar problems of their own by using the advice given by the agony aunt or uncle. Another is music master classes, where a tutor gives one student individual tuition while others watch and learn from the lesson.

The project will use a web based learning resource to make virtual patients available to trainee therapists. This allows them to make clinical judgements without the demands of managing a real patient, or the risks to the patient themselves. Pairs of students will work through a clinical case and their conversations will be recorded.

Expert clinicians will find points in the conversations where the students get to a stalemate and cannot agree or go any further. These points will used to develop learning materials that assist future students to overcome obstacles to accurate diagnosis. Some materials will involve tutorials from experts and other conversations between students These final discussions will be used to assess whether they can effectively teach other learners. The idea is that students may learn better from listening to, and possibly engaging with, the thought processes of their peers, rather than simply listening to an expert.

Dr. Rosemary Varley, of the Department of Human Communication at the University of Sheffield is a member of the study team. She says, We think that people may be more disposed to respond and learn from their peers experience. Another issue is whether or not experts as teachers sometimes forget that their students are starting from a lower level of knowledge and use vocabulary or shortcuts that are unfamiliar to their students. The work we are doing could be transferred to other, non medical professions, such as law and could change the way we teach students across all disciplines.

Notes for Editors: The £700,000 grant is part of the ESRCs Teaching and Learning Resource Programme.

Please contact Jeanette Newcombe on 0114 2221032 or email